Disenfranchising Minorities via Census: Burma (Myanmar)

In Burma (officially known as Myanmar), the government has begun the first census in three decades (according to the BBC). Of course, the document and census takers (presumably) are refusing to allow any individuals to classify themselves as Rohingya. While the article notes that the UN (which is assisting with the census) asserts that all people should be free to choose their own ethnicity – the Burmese government (not to be confused with Burman) only allows individuals to choose “Bengali” or they would not be registered.

The Rohingya are a dialect of Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims residing primarily in Arakan state, which was formerly its own kingdom until it was conquered by the Burman Empire (and subsequently incorporated into the entity now known as Burma) in the 17th or 18th century. The Rohingya’s language, a dialect of Bengali as I have indicated, is the primary basis for the government’s assertion that they are ethnically “Bengali.” In addition, this linguistic difference coupled with their predominantly Sunni Islamic religious orientation adds some (apparently unwelcome) diversity to the mostly Theravada Buddhist state.

The Burmese government, taking an increasingly Buddhist-nationalist bent (as evidenced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the Rohingya’s situation), has labelled the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” despite the community’s presence in the same area for centuries. Thousands of Rohingya have settled in neighboring Bangladesh (peopled predominantly by Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims) in refugee camps just over the Burma-Bangladesh border. Many were forcibly (through outright violence or intimidation) migrated. As the article notes one recent spate of violence occurred in 2012, reminiscent of the Gujarat pogroms a decade earlier (where now-Prime Ministerial candidate in India Narendra Modi turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the state) the Rakhine violence began with the alleged rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl by several Muslim Rohingya men. Hundreds died and thousands displaced in the ensuing violence.

That the government is refusing to acknowledge the Rohingya minority is of no surprise. A country’s census (typically) forms the basis for electoral districts, acknowledging (and publishing) the population of Rohingya in Rakhine state would undoubtedly find the Rohingya to be a substantial minority in the state. There is also the “official recognition” factor, acknowledging Rohingya in a Burmese census provides official recognition of their status as Burmese citizens. Herein lies the deviously cunning gem in the government’s plan, allow the Rohingya to either acknowledge they are “Bengalis” and therefore “illegal immigrants” or don’t allow them to register at all and therefore have a basis to deny citizenship (and voting rights).

Even if the United Nations manages to convince the government to back down and allow “Rohingya” to be officially recognized, the government still has options to oppress the minorities. Borrowing a page from North Carolina’s playbook – there is the tried-and-true tactic of gerrymandering electoral districts in Rakhine state to minimize the impact of the Rohingya vote. If that doesn’t work, there is also a myriad ways to keep minorities out of the polls or simply discount their votes.

And there is the potential for violence, while most Rohingya are probably unlikely to undertake violent activity – they are under siege, as evidenced by the forced migrations over several decades, the government’s latest action likely will fuel resentment among the community. A troubling thought is the potential for the census forms to be used to target “Bengali”-Rohingya. Again referencing the Gujarat pogroms, riot leaders had voter lists (otherwise names and addresses) of Muslims throughout the community to focus the killings and looting. Beyond the Rohingya community, other ethnic minorities (such as the Karen and Shan) are also watching the census with anticipation. These larger minority communities are also armed, organized, and concentrated geographically.


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